People gather to pay their respects at a memorial to the El Paso victims on Aug. 6. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)
Opinion writer

The newest aspect of the political media’s favorite “game” — the lazy practice of reporters and TV producers aimed at stirring fights among Democratic presidential candidates — is to assail candidates for using the term “white nationalism” to describe the ideology that President Trump foments instead of the phrase “white supremacy.” Thursday it was former vice president Joe Biden’s turn. This is nonsense and entirely irresponsible.

Let’s use some easily accessible terminology from the Anti-Defamation League (which responsible reporters should have referenced before misinforming the public) to understand what we’re talking about:

White Nationalism: White nationalism is a term that originated among white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy. Eventually, some white supremacists tried to distinguish it further by using it to refer to a form of white supremacy that emphasizes defining a country or region by white racial identity and which seeks to promote the interests of whites exclusively, typically at the expense of people of other backgrounds.

White Supremacy: White supremacy is a term used to characterize various belief systems central to which are one or more of the following key tenets: 1) whites should have dominance over people of other backgrounds, especially where they may co- exist; 2) whites should live by themselves in a whites-only society; 3) white people have their own “culture” that is superior to other cultures; 4) white people are genetically superior to other people. As a full-fledged ideology, white supremacy is far more encompassing than simple racism or bigotry. Most white supremacists today further believe that the white race is in danger of extinction due to a rising “flood” of non-whites, who are controlled and manipulated by Jews, and that imminent action is need to “save” the white race.

When a reporter grills candidates as to why they are using “white nationalism” and not “white supremacy,” the reporter is falsely suggesting use of the former means the candidates are less committed to opposing the scourge of white nationalist terrorism. In fact, all they are doing is using the white supremacists’ own language games to create a fake controversy. They need to stop it. (For convenience sake, I will use the term “white nationalism,” but make no mistake, this is nothing more or less than “white supremacy.”)

And for those who think the “alt-right” is something more benign, once again it’s time to gets the terms straight. The ADL notes:

The alt right (short for “alternative right”) is a segment of the white supremacist movement consisting of a loose network of racists and anti-Semites who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of politics that embrace implicit or explicit racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy. Many seek to re-inject such bigoted ideas into the conservative movement in the United States. The alt right also includes many racist users of image boards and message forums such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit who enjoy harassing or “trolling” people who disagree with their views.

As for certain Fox News hosts, Trump-toadying Republicans and virulent anti-immigrant groups who deny they are “white nationalists,” let’s be clear: They regularly parrot key components of white supremacist/nationalist ideology: the belief that American identity is tied to race; the hysteria that the United States is being overrun by nonwhites; the notion that whites are being “replaced” (a key component of white nationalism) by nonwhites who will change the essence of America; and the belief that nonwhites (contrary to all available evidence) are more dangerous than whites.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has argued that we shouldn’t fight over who is and is not a racist, but instead worry about who is making things better or worse. I disagree with the first part in one important respect: It is essential to identify who is propagating racism, who is contributing to the normalization of white nationalism and who is giving a platform to those who use code words to describe nonwhites in white nationalist terms (“infested,” “invasion,” “dirty”).

We do need to identify those propounding rhetoric that fuels the white nationalists’ movement and its violent adherents. The words of major political figures matter. “They act as a dog-whistle, which empowers advocates for white supremacist conspiracy theorists, and encourages them to disseminate extremist messaging more broadly,” writes Jacob Davey, a fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. “It is crucial that politicians are held accountable for their role in stoking the fires of extremism through their rhetoric.”

In some respects, it is more important when dealing with white nationalist terrorism — precisely because it does not operate primarily through large organizations — to address the words emanating from the loudest bully pulpit. “The challenge is that, unlike in the past, this violence is not fueled by identifiable terrorist organizations or terrorist leaders,” writes Bruce Hoffman from the Council on Foreign Relations. “Rather, it is driven by these individuals’ wanton embrace of conspiracy theories and ideological diatribes against immigration.”

Hoffman explains: “These rants have now found their way into the mainstream of political discourse via campaign rallies, tweets, and similarly calculated diatribes by President Donald J. Trump and other political figures. Coupled with the availability of highly lethal firearms, the inevitable outcome is tragedies such as those in Pittsburgh and in Poway, California—and, this past weekend, in El Paso.” He adds, “It is imperative for the president and leaders from both parties to deliver on their declamations of this past weekend’s violence with legislation to address this toxic mix of hateful online propaganda and easily obtainable firearms.”

The same imperative to identify sources of white nationalist inspiration is true of media outlets. To be clear, Fox News puts on air every weeknight hosts who spew rhetoric that is identical to and reinforces white nationalism. A subset of people with those views commits mass murder. How any advertiser, board member or executive can be a part of that is beyond belief.

In sum, the media do not educate the public by mimicking word games that white nationalists themselves employ to try to make themselves more acceptable. What would be helpful is to explain the ideology of white nationalism and identify and confront public figures and media outlets that are throwing gasoline on the white nationalist inferno. That would be how a responsible media would hold the powerful accountable for their conduct.